The Stars My Destination; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Gully Foyle is my name

And Terra is my nation.

Deep space is my dwelling place

And the stars my destination.

I did have a review of sort in the archives for my favorite science fiction novel.

Does it have plausible science? No, but Bester works out the implications of mentally powered teleportation well.

It has vengeance.

It has an epic opening.

As the late reviewer Baird Searles titled his review of a re-issue of the novel: “Better. Best. Bester.”

The plot? Spacer Gully Foyle, a “stereotype Common Man”, is the sole survivor of a wrecked starship. After figuring out how to survive for 170 days in space, a ship, the Vorga, arrives.

But it doesn’t pick him up.

It leaves him stranded. The “door to holocaust” is opened, and Foyle begins his transformation into a juggernaut of vengeance with a face that flares with tiger stripes when angered and the words “‘Vorga,’ I kill you filthy” on his lips.

It’s a science fiction version of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It even has the same number of syllables in the title as writer and poet and fan of the novel Joe Haldeman pointed out.

The verse at the beginning showed up, in of all places, an episode of the animated tv show Phantom 2040 from 1994. (I believe it was one of the three “Dark Orbit” episodes.) It was a science fiction updating of The Phantom comic strip, a strip Bester wrote for.

Reviewer parallax provided by Speculiction.

Raw Feed (1990): The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, 1956.Stars My Destination

I enjoyed this book even more the second time around.

The first time I read it, I was swept away by the excitement and suspense of the story, the depth of Gully Foyle’s obsession for vengeance, and Bester’s splendid working out of a society built on the ubiquitous principle of personal mental teleportation, the jaunte.

Those things were all there on the second reading but I noticed other things as well.

The theme of transcendence was obvious even on the first reading, but this time I noticed its many faces. Foyle not only develops himself physically and intellectually but morally; he thinks about his place in society. At one point, it is said, “The man who upsets the morphology of society is cancer.”  A curiously helpful, wise but malfunctioning, robot says a person is a member of society first, an individual second.

Foyle seeks a purging in punishment. Foyle will transform the millions like him who are stereotypically Common Men squandering their talents until he forces them, like him, to undergo a change.

Foyle seemed much more complex on this reading, and, ultimately, Foyle learns that not only should he not have been rescued since he was bait in a trap but also that Vorga would have just killed him after he was picked up since they were killing the refugees they were hauling.

Though Bester seemed, like many wimpy revenge stories, to have an ending where vengeance seems wrong, it doesn’t feel contrived since his novel is so concerned with questions of transformation and transcendence besides the obsession and justice of revenge.

On this reading, Foyle is somewhat contradictory character.  Bester deliberately shows this when he puts two scenes almost back to back. Jisbella McQueen discovers Gully Foyle is Fourmyle of Ceres. Foyle could kill her in Martian Commando Killer moder (I’m sure, in addition to other baroque touches, this is one of Bester’s influences on the cyberpunk authors) but doesn’t. The idea doesn’t occur to him.  Despite his denial and McQueen’s own statements, there seems to be a residue of love or, at least, faith and loyalty between the two. Yet in almost the next scene Foyle lies to Robin Wednesbury to get her to reveal Rodger Kempsey’s location on the moon. He promises to let her go then reneges on his word and forces her to still accompany him on his quest for revenge.

There also seems to be, at least on Wednesbury’s part, love between her and Foyle. She says, “You’re in love with her?  Olivia Presteign? … Ah, now you have lost me.” When Foyle becomes enamored of Olivia Presteign, Wednesbury seems to obliquely reveal a love of Foyle. Foyle, for his part, uses Wednesbury as a tool after once raping her.

Foyle’s dual side is revealed in the novel’s early part when McQueen speaks of his obsession.

Some of the novel’s best writing is at the end of the first part when Foyle, unable to control his obsession, leaves McQueen behind. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s entry for Bester, written by Willis E. McNelly, speaks of this novel’s Jungian aspects. I don’t know much about Jungian theory but the observation seems valid. Certainly Bester, in personal statements, has talked about an interest in psychological theories and his The Demolished Man certainly shows Freudian themes.  Foyle’s tiger tattoo seems to be (Why didn’t the publisher keep Bester’s wonderful title Tiger!  Tiger!?) symbolic of what, I think, Jung called the shadow side. It is a stigmata of possession by dark, uncontrolled passions.

I believe the same thing is evident in Foyle’s strange, sudden (though Foyle attributes this to her being an Ice Princess, a Snow Maiden, symbol of the unattainable — a Jungian archetype) to Olivia Presteign. Or is this an example of the duality Jung saw in every person, ying and yang, male and female?

The novel shows religious symbology too. I probably wouldn’t have picked up on this without reading The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s Bester entry. Foyle is born again when Vorga leaves him and again when he jauntes out of St. Pat’s Cathedral. It is ironic perhaps that revelation of his abilities occurs there — or, at least, the conscious application of his incredible jaunting abilities. Also ironic that Foyle should be transformed in a church after earlier contemptuously commenting on religionists’ escape via their faith. He escapes his fate and realizes his abilities in a Church. Foyle is a curious combination of Moses, Christ, and a Faustian Mephistophles at novel’s end.

He sets the common man free from his mediocrity and from the tyranny of the tiger men, who Foyle sees as paternalistic, tyrannical, obsessed and also as scapegoats for the evasion of responsibility by the masses — more contradictory duality and perhaps another Jungian idea. And this time I actually got the point that Man doesn’t blow himself up for at least thirty years after getting PyrE — which, as Presteign comments, is detonated by the original creative forces of God: Will and Idea.

Foyle, with PyrE, also gives humans a terrible power and knowledge. He also serves as a liberator like Moses. The author of the Bester entry sees JXseph and MCira at novel’s end as Joseph and Mary, Christ’s parents. I don’t think so. Foyle seems to be treated like a prophet but the relation between Foyle and MCira seems like that of Christ and the woman who poured expensive perfume on him.

On a literary level, Bester uses the novel’s major characters as symbols of the major obsessions of society. Foyle — revenge, Paul Yong-Yeovil — pragmatic patriotism, McQueen — idealism, Presteign — greed and power, Wednesbury — sin and forgiveness, and Saul Dagenham  — transformation from selfish cynic to patriot. Foyle, when debating whether to reveal to the populace PyrE’s existence, questions the purity and consistency of their morals and value.

That malfunctioning robot (a seeming oracle from on high) tells him he must teach and not dictate to society, have faith in something. (It’s interesting that faith is necessary to jaunte and that Foyle, at story’s end, has faith in faith).

The description of synesthesia was breathtaking, the typography a clever device.  Bester’s elements of freakiness brilliance range from the Freak Factory to Cellar Christians, from Disease Collectors to Skoptsy to the Scientific People.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Odd John and Sirius; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

My Olaf Stapledon series concludes with two of his most well known novels.

One’s about a super child. The other’s about a super dog.

Alternate perspectives on Odd John: From Couch to Moon and Speculiction.

Alternate perspective on Sirius: Speculiction

Raw Feed (2004): Odd John and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon, 1972.Odd John

Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest — This 1935 novel may very well be the archetypal superman/mutant/superchild novel. It’s hardly the first. H. G. Wells certainly had an earlier version with his The Food of the Gods.

Stapledon, a professional philosopher, was clearly interesting in using the viewpoint of his super mutant John in criticizing human affairs. That, of course, is one of the time honored purpose of sf, but it was also interesting to read the author of the ultimate in cosmic tales (so much so that Stapledonian is an adjective in discussing sf) — Star Maker and Last and First Men — write a personal story though you could argue his Last Men in London was a bridge between the two scopes of story.

I suspect that every author of superchildren since has had to contend with this novel. In particular, the narrator is sympathetic to John like a dog to a human. He regards John as above human morality thus doesn’t judge him when he murders a policeman or when he commits incest with his mother Pax — an incident of incest in which the narrator coyly says he can’t describe but talks about it explicitly enough where we know what happened if not the details of the act itself. Continue reading

Last Men in London

Surely you knew that mention of Olaf Stapledon was going to start another series.

We start with one of Stapledon’s most obscure science fiction works.

I read this one out of the 1976 Gregg Press. They never seem to have come with dust jackets, so you get no cover picture for this one.

This one definitely needs a re-read for the World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Raw Feed (1996): Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon, 1932.

My reactions to reading this novel in 1996. Spoilers follow.

“Introduction”, Curtis C. Smith and Harvey J. Satty — Introduction to the 1976 edition of the novel. It talks of Stapledon’s vision that inspired his Last and First Men and Last Men in London. It also speaks of the generally harsh criticism of this sequel to Last and First Men and this novel’s obscurity. The authors also note many similarities between character Paul and Stapledon.

Last Men in London, Olaf Stapledon — In many ways, this sequel to Stapledon’s Last and First Men is very different. It is much lacking in the speculative wonders of natural and social evolution of the latter novel. The only new things in that regard are the society of philosophical lemurs which predate man. Their territory is invaded by primitive man who wipes the lemurs out because, though they are philosophically and morally advanced, they’re lacking in practical knowledge, skill, and curiosity. This notion that man must have intellectual curiosity, scientific learning, dispassion and detachment, a comfortable sensuality, a morality that emphasizes community, and a sense of cosmic purpose is emphasized again and again. Every species before the near-perfect 18th Man is lacking at least one of these virtues, and, therefore, doomed. Of course, even the 18th men are doomed and revert to primitive, near-animals. Continue reading

Last and First Men; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

My concluding entry in a series of books touched on by the Wells works I’ve covered. This book is mentioned in Wells’ Star-Begotten.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do the novel justice.

Another perspectives are provided by From Couch to Moon.

Raw Feed (1996): Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, Olaf Stapledon, 1930.Last and First Men

Everything I’ve ever heard about Stapledon is correct judging on the basis of this novel. He was a totally unique voice in sf when this novel was published, and he is still totally unique. His epic style in which millions of years can routinely pass in the space of a paragraph often has a religious flavor to it harkening back to psalms (his first book of poetry was called Latter-Day Psalms).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (in a blurb at the front of this book) claims Stapledon is the second most influential writer in sf next to Wells. I think that claim is arguable. Certainly Wells introduced, or gave a big boost, to such perennial sf motifs as time travel, alien invasion, surgery on/genetic manipulation of animals, the far future story, the physical evolution of man. Stapledon creates few new ideas, but his epic style and his spiritual concerns are different than Wells’. [Certainly, I would put Stapedon in the top five most influential science fiction writers.]

Wells, in The Time Machine and, to a lesser extent, “A Story of the Days to Come“, shows us humans evolved physically and socially. However, Wells does not dwell at length on the various stages of evolution. He contents himself with showing some final end stage like the Morlocks and Eloi and giving a brief explanation as to how they evolve. Continue reading

Somme: 1 July 1916

I read this one on the 100th anniversary of its title.

Yes, I’m catching up on some reviews.

This is an Osprey Publishing book. If you have spent any time in wargaming shops or reading military history, you’ve probably seen their work. They are chock-full of maps and color drawings for those painting wargame miniatures and models and offer concise yet detailed looks at their subjects. Scholarly monographs for popular audiences basically.

Before this one, I think I’ve only read one of their books. It was on Roman forts along the Saxon Shore of England – an interest I developed after accidentally wandering into one, Portchester Castle, on the way to Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson. (Those familiar with Portchester’s geography may wonder how such an accident could possibly occur. It’s a long story.)

I’ve inherited a bunch of Osprey books on the English Civil War (not a particular interest of mine) from one of my companions on that expedition, and this book I got when a friend was purging his library.

Review: Somme: 1 July 1916: Tragedy and Triumph, Andrew Robertshaw, 2006.Somme

This book is the 169th entry in Osprey Publishing’s in Campaign series.

It lays out, in the first 41 pages, the context of the Somme campaign: the events in World War One that preceded it, the state of the opposing armies, strategic objectives of the opposing sides, and looks at the opposing commanders.

The rest of the 96 pages look at the first day of the Battle of the Somme including the experiences of soldiers on both sides. The concluding pages look at the battlefield today.

It’s hardly my first exposure to the Battle of the Somme, a battle that looms as large as any in the memory of Englishmen for its greatest single day slaughter of the British Army.

The book has a couple of points that stuck out for me.

First is the “triumph” of the title. There were Allied successes on the first day. The British XIII Corps took its objectives including Montauban. The French army also got as far as second-line German positions. Continue reading

Stealing Other People’s Homework: Network theory may explain the vulnerability of medieval human settlements to the Black Death pandemic

No, it has nothing to do with books, but the Black Death has long fascinated me.

Complexity Digest

Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. Two network attributes, transitivity (when a node is connected to two other nodes that are also directly connected between them) and centrality (the number and intensity of connections with the other nodes in the network), are widely associated with the dynamics of transmission of pathogens. Here we investigate how network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations by examining one of the most devastating pandemic in human history, the fourteenth century plague pandemic called Black Death. We found that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague. A simulation study indicates that this association was due to central cities with high transitivity undergo more exogenous re-infections. Our study provides an easy method…

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News from Nowhere

I mentioned this novel in my review of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia.

Raw Feed (1996): News from Nowhere; Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, William Morris, 1891.News from Nowhere

This book may very well have been on the Unabomber’s bookshelf. [Probably not given that it’s not on the list of books he wanted back from the FBI.]  This communistic, arts and crafts tyranny would appeal to the anti-technological Unabomber with his hand-crafted bombs. Communism is the explicitly stated philosophy at work here, and Morris was famous for his works on artistic aesthetics.

Morris is resolutely anti-technological and explicitly and frequently evokes his beloved 14th century Europe as a model for living. He even dismisses their more reprehensible laws as at least being sincere unlike Victorian laws which, according to him, are repressive and hypocritically justified. To be fair to Morris, two of 14th Century Europe’s problems – plague and famine – were not yet really being alleviated by contemporary science – not that Morris really mentions them as problems of 14th century life.

This is not really, despite being frequently mentioned in sf histories, a sf novel. Essentially, it’s a dream vision (more echoes of Morris’ medievalism) of Morris’ utopia. As with all utopias, it has to be criticized on two levels: the literary merits and the merits of the ideas. Continue reading

An Island Called Moreau

Another posting about books related to H. G. Wells.

Raw Feed (1996): An Island Called Moreau, Brian W. Aldiss, 1981.Island Called Moreau

Sort of a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The founding conceit here is that there really was a Moreau or, rather MacMoreau who conducted vivisection experiments fictionalized by Wells. Aldiss brings the story forward to 1996 and keeps much the same plot: a shipwrecked (or rather spacewrecked) man lands on the island, is horrified by the experiments being conducted on beasts, and eventually watches the whole set up come crashing down.

However, narrator Edward Prendick of Wells’ novel is rather – in the world at large – insignificant. Aldiss’ narrator, Calvert Roberts, is an ambitious, self-important, rather pompous Undersecretary of State for the U.S. (Oddly, though his primary job is as negotiator, he is unable to reconcile the Beast People and Dart.) Moreau is a rather physically strong, imposing figure. Aldiss’ island is ruled over by Mortimer Dart, a man maimed by fetal exposure to thalidomide. Like Moreau, he has set himself up as a god over the Beast People (descendants of MacMoreau’s experimental subjects), and he gives the law to them in catchy rock tunes reminiscent of Moreau’s Law chants.

Dart is interested in the effects of form and attitude on behavior (the plasticity of flesh like Moreau). He sees himself as a victim though he is just as tyrannical as Moreau and experiments on human fetus’ to create Seal People. Like Wells’ novel, this book is concerned with animal and human nature. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, the narrator tries, at first, to see a sharp distinction between man and beast then realizes much of the animal remains in man. In this novel, the narrator realizes there is a continuum of animal to human nature. Continue reading

War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Another review connected to the recent H. G. Wells series.

Raw Feed (1996): War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, ed. Kevin J. Anderson, 1996.Global Dispatches

“Foreword”, Kevin J. Anderson — An ill-conceived and badly executed conceit for this anthology: that all the stories represent a unified, expanded view of the Martian novel depicted in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. Anderson would have been better off presenting each story as a particular riff on Wells’ story, not part of a unified suite on Wells’ story.

The Roosevelt Dispatches”, Mike Resnick — Not one of Resnick’s better alternate histories involving Teddy Roosevelt. Essentially, this is about Roosevelt discovering a Martian scout and expressing optimism about the innate American ability to resist Martian invasion.

Canals in the Sand”, Kevin J. Anderson — This story features Percival Lowell (the spiritual godfather, in a sense, of Wells’ Martians and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom) and draws most of its strength by using the historical Lowell – a haughty, Boston Brahmin who spent most of his life as a professional diplomat to Japan and Korea amongst other places – rather than the current conception of him as a crazed astronomer drawing maps of a dying Mars canals. Haughty, rich, strong-willed Lowell spends a fortune constructing an excavation in the Sahara so the (he presumes) peaceable Martians will meet him there thus making him man’s ambassador to them. The Martians do come. Anderson doesn’t explicitly tell us what happens to Lowell when the Martians come, but, having read Wells, we can guess.

Foreign Devils”, Walter Jon Williams — An intriguing, well-done story in which the puppet Emperor (he is under the control of the military faction of “Iron Hats”) and Dowager Empress use the Martian invasion to free themselves from the Iron Hats, the Boxers (the story is set during the Boxer rebellion), and China from foreign influence. The Emperor will use his new power to modernize the hide-bound Chinese state. Continue reading

Dear Sweet Filthy World; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

There are many things I like about Caitlín R. Kiernan’s work ever since encountering it with “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6” in Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth in 2005.

Her Lovecraft related fiction is always interesting. Her prose, as I said in my review of Threshold, is read-aloud beautiful. As with my Ambrose Bierce and Kathe Koja series, I started to read her novels when she was scheduled to appear at the local Arcana convention. She had to cancel, and I haven’t read a novel of hers since. (Yet another  reading project to return to.)

She likes Charles Fort, naming one of her collections To Charles Fort With Love.

And she is a former paleontologist who drops a lot of references to geology into her fiction.

I’ll come back to geology at the end of the review.

Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased has a review of the book mentioning specific titles.

Review: Dear Sweet Filthy World, coll. Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2017.Dear Sweet Filthy World

What can I tell you about the Dear Sweet Filthy World I have returned from?

I could tell you it is a land bordered by dangerous women prowling the interstates of America; one has a head stuffed with visions of conflagrations at Dresden and Hiroshima and Peshtigo and Chicago; two are incestuous twins in a roving church of murder and sex, orgasmic rites with knives and pliers.

Should I tell you of the caged woman unsure if she was once a dragon?

Should I tell you of lovers found in the liminal lands between earth and sea, one a demon from the sky and one a creature of the Earth?

Should I tell you of the women who give themselves in orgasmic embrace to giant trilobites and Cthulhoid monsters and giant orchids and dragons, willing lambs to ecstatic slaughter?

Should I tell you that I saw Mr. Lovecraft’s shoggoths and heard howling werewolves? That I saw the savage art of the Black Dahlia murder? Continue reading